Queer Theory and Buddhist Thought

I want to talk about queer theory this week. It’s on my mind all the time since I go to Smith, but also because I’m taking a SWG class this semester. Much of queer theory derives from the idea that there is no inherent, or “natural” quality in a person that causes them to identify to a certain way of life/being immediately at birth, a mode/representation that they will continue to identify with throughout their lives. The theory presents the idea that identity is fluid and always changing. As the semester progressed and I reached deeper levels of understanding with queer theory, I was simultaneously learning about the concepts of emptiness, interdependence (“no self”, “mind only”, etc) that are so fundamental to Buddhism. I began to draw comparisons between the two–at the root of it, they mirror each other in a lot of ways. Consider this quote from a recent reading I had in my SWG class about queer feminism:

“Feminists of the digital age must refuse the nostalgic discourse of authentic selves, of natural bodies, of fixed communities and instead attend to the ‘structures and relations that produce different kinds of subjects in position with different kinds of technologies’” (Loza).

and later,

“[P]ossession of vaginas in and of themselves are neither what define women nor what bond women to each other. Shared experiences of the world, which include experiences of race, sexuality, (dis)ability, economic class, any number of nuanced vulnerabilities… is what bonds women to each other” (Loza quoting Mia McKenzie).

We see here the Buddhist idea that there is no intrinsic characteristic of a fixed, absolute “self” (essence) that creates a definitive identity of an individual, combined with the queer idea that there is no inherent, necessary characteristic underneath personhood that codes them as either gender; we must let go of characteristics of the self and body that we have held onto so tightly in order to code us into a conventional, binary definition of gender. The perceived identities of people, and in Loza/McKenzie’s case women as a gender, arise interdependently through a chain of lived experiences. Are these queer ideas not reminiscent of the human impulse of attachment and the ultimate truth of   interdependence/emptiness/essencelessness of all objects and beings?! Basically, we are attached to gender. We perceive gender as a kind of conventional truth, whereas the ultimate truth is that gender is empty of any real qualities.

I find this connection to be extremely exciting. Think about it–here we have the age-old ideas of Buddhism being combined and echoed through a extremely new, current, and revolutionary theories on identity. Not only does queer theory’s subconscious application of Buddhist ideas and values validate the timeless/continual logic of Buddhist thought (making it a more innately contemporary religion than religions like Christianity), but it also equally validates the utility and versatility of queer theory in many facets of experience, not limited to social/sexual identity but also religious identity. Understanding the relationship between the two has the potential to be remarkably powerful, and I hope it is one that doesn’t go unnoticed by intellectuals and academics–so far, I haven’t found many articles or journals about their similarities. (In fact, I just read that one of the people writing about it died before he could finish it!) Perhaps that means that I’ll have to be the Queer Buddhist studies pioneer.

Works Cited:

Loza, Susana. “Hashtag Feminism, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and the Other #FemFuture – Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology.” Ada A Journal of Gender New Media and Technology. N.p., 07 July 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.


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3 Responses to Queer Theory and Buddhist Thought

  1. Lisa says:

    There’s actually quite a few articles on what you’re talking about, namely gender, form in sutra, and Buddhism. I would start with Susanne Mrozik’s Materializations of Virtue: Buddhist Discourses on Bodies which is a Butlerian interpretation of the Buddha body (namely the 32 markers), she actually teaches at Mt. Holyoke if you want to talk with her or take a class with her. Other writers working in similar veins that you want to check out might be Rita Gross, Nancy Schuster’s “Changing the Female Body: Wise Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some Maharatnakutasutras”, Lucinda Joy Peach’s “Social responsibility, sex change, and salvation: Gender justice in the Lotus Sūtra”, and Miriam L. Levering’s “The Dragon Daughter” and “The Dragon Girl and the Abbess of Mo-Shan: Gender and Status in the Ch’an Buddhist Tradition”. There’s also some stuff on Guanyin or Avalokiteśhvara that you might be into, specifically look at how when the figure of Avalokiteśhvara heads east, there’s a change in gender.

    I would caution against the idea that one any one religion is more “contemporary” than any other, especially considering how nothing is actually apolitical. But also because there are so many multiplicities of Buddhism it would be ridiculous to claim that one particular form or interpretation or reading has somehow grasped at true nature of Buddhism anymore so than any other of the thousands of readings of Buddhism by various cultures in any given time and place. Which is to say Baptist’s aren’t somehow less Christian say Unitarian Universalists. Not to mention that the divide existent between theology and practice is still subject to a number of gendered oppressions just like any other religion. But literally every Buddhist text is polemic to some degree, which is fine, but just because an interpretation can align nicely with gender theory doesn’t mean it’s new.

  2. Emma says:

    I agree with the previous comment that it is how people are currently framing a religion as opposed to the religion itself that makes it seem “contemporary,” or, for example, compatible with queer theory. From an American/European/Western perspective, there is far less political and theological baggage that comes with a less familiar religion (like Buddhism) than that which comes with a culturally entrenched tradition. But there is actually a vast amount of work being done around Christianity and queer theory–it would be interesting to be able to look at that together with your discussion of queer theory and Buddhism!

  3. jpf12 says:

    I agree that queer theory and Buddhism can work very well together. At the same time, we have talked in class about the often clear distinctions made between men and woman and their roles within Buddhism. So, while aspects of Buddhism, as you pointed out, work well with queer theory, the lived religion often challenges it. I also found it interesting that you say Buddhism is “a more innately contemporary religion than religions like Christianity.” I think this is a very common opinion these days, at least around here, but I wonder how valid this claim is. Can christianity also work with queer theory? Is it the religions themselves or just how people are currently framing the religion that makes one more relevant than the other?

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